The New Martyrdom

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on March 23, 2014.

Everyone is talking about the New Evangelization. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (the reason for the Council, in this author’s humble opinion), it is a missionary effort to bring the Gospel to a modern, secular world which has, for the most part, rejected, ignored, or at best, compartmentalized it for its own purposes.

I love Pope John XXIII’s image of “opening the windows”. Some have interpreted this as the Council’s blessing on bringing the modern world into the Church, on updating its teachings and practices to “better fit into” the modern world that the Church finds herself in. These same people have been gravely disappointed that the Church has remained consistent in its teachings, especially the ones that prove difficult for the modern mind to accept. If the Council was not about bringing the modern world into the Church, then what do we do with this image of the open window?

I say, “Fly!” Yes, the New Evangelization is about flying out of the window with the Gospel in hand (and heart!) and living it radically, encountering the world at every turn, bringing the light of Christ to it. I say flying because human beings cannot fly of their own power. The New Evangelization requires a complete trust in God’s providential care. A radical living of the Gospel demonstrates that trust. It will bring about a transformation of the world, not a “better fitting into” it.

The Christian views the world through the eyes of the Gospel, not the Gospel through the eyes of the world. Just like the first Christians, a person radically living the Gospel, radically loving as God loves, will be misunderstood, labeled an outcast at best or a threat at worst, and ultimately rejected or persecuted. The Christian is not of the world, and will be hated by the world (John 15:9). Thus, the New Evangelization is a call to a New Martyrdom.

This martyrdom is not to be sought, nor is it a rejection of the world. It is simply the response the world will have to the Christian, who is loving for the world’s sake, in order to transform it. If the world is considered “the enemy”, the Christian loves the enemy, making friends (even brother and sisters) in the process, and bringing about the kingdom of God. We fight the enemy with love, not so the enemy dies, but so that he may have life.

Pope Benedict welcomes Pope FrancisBoth Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis understand this. Two ways the contemporary Christian lives out this martyrdom is by loving God and loving one’s neighbor – regardless of the worldly consequences. In a modern world, where human reason is god and wealth is the measure of success, faith in a transcendent God and life that first concerns the welfare of one’s neighbor put one in opposition to the way things work. Benedict spent much of his papacy tending to the celebration of the liturgy, the worship of God. His papacy culminated in a Year of Faith, celebrating faith in the resurrected Jesus and the consequences of having a personal relationship with Him (which is, of course, to know unconditional love in one’s life and to be able to recognize the lack of it in the world). Pope Francis has followed up with a focus on how human beings are to treat each other in light of this faith, placing a spotlight on the poor of the world, our neighbor.

We might come to an awareness of how our actions – economic, political, environmental, etc. – affect other people (even future generations), but we will only care about these effects if, by faith, we are united to all people in the love of God. Only with the faith of which Benedict speaks can the Church of Francis come to fruition. The witness of the New Martyrs will bring the world to Christ, for they will prove the truth of the Gospel.

Carmina Chapp teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Today is the feast of St. Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), a saint cut from the same cloth as St Mary MacKillopDorothy Day (1897-1980) and St. Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-62). St. Mary bravely sought to follow God’s will, refusing to accept easy answers or options to what she felt God had called her. A native Australian (of Scottish descent), Mary established her own religious order—since no existing ones quite met her expectations. The Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart (or Josephites) staffed orphanage schools and engaged other sorts of charitable work among the poor. Much like Dorothy Day, Mary started this apostolic work in her twenties, and like Day she encountered resistance from powerful church leaders. Mary’s bishop actually excommunicated her for a while, having misread her and her order’s independence as dissent. Much like St. Gianna, who endured physical pain (dying from cancer while pregnant), St. Mary endured the spiritual pain of excommunication patiently. The human foibles that led to St. Mary’s temporary banishment still puzzle us, because she and her Josephite sisters clearly engaged in Christ-like work. Her online biography states:

Despite her struggles with Church authorities, Mary MacKillop and her Sisters were able to offer social services that few, if any, government agencies in Australia could. They served Protestants and Catholics alike. They worked among the aborigines. They taught in schools and orphanages and served unmarried mothers.

Once reinstated, she wisely sought assistance from Rome and eventually won the support of Pope Leo XIII himself. At her death in 1909, the Josephites thrived. Beatified in 1995 by St. John Paul II, St. Mary MacKillop was canonized, the first Australian recognized as a saint, in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.

St. Mary’s witness resonates in today’s lectionary, too. Like Dorothy and St. Gianna, and surely an entire host of holy women—some canonized, others known only to God—St. Mary MacKillop feared God’s authority, not men’s. Through the prophet Jeremiah God declares He will gather the remnants under new leadership, ones who tend to God’s people. “I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing”. Psalm 23 likewise celebrates God’s abiding care, even in the shadows, while St. Paul encourages the Ephesians through Christ the remote and marginalized are brought near to God. St. Mary MacKillop endured what she did sustained by these biblical calls to justice for God’s people.

Finally, St. Mark (ch. 6:30-34) details Christ’s concern for the masses—many of whom thwarted his and the apostles’ desire for quiet reflection—and His unflinching gift of Himself. After all, they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” Surely this very Gospel example helped inspire St. Mary’s wide-ranging work among Australia’s poor. William Placher, along with many other theologians and biblical scholars, has noted St. Mark’s stark, often shocking, imagery which propels Christ through the Gospel. In Mark, Jesus always acts immediately. It is almost as if Jesus is impatient with the entire narrative, rushing through His ministry towards the Passion, His ultimate self-giving. Facing a leaderless yet expectant crowd, the exhausted Jesus teaches nonetheless. That same fervor spikes our interest in saints like St. Mary MacKillop, holy women who courageously addressed the problems right before them.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Communion & Evangelization: A Lesson from Evangelii Gaudium

It’s Worth Repeating Wednesday! This post originally appeared on April 9, 2014.

Recently I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The instructions one usually receives upon agreeing to be part of such an activity normally only extend as far as: “Just make a brief presentation on something that struck you in the text.” The instructions in this case would be no different. The following, therefore, is a short mediation on what I understand to be a great lesson to be learned, or reminder to be noted, from Evangelii Gaudium.

When one normally conceives of evangelization, a phrase often used is “handing on the faith.” While a good phrase, a temptation can be to understand faith strictly as it relates to the intellect. In other words, faith relates to what we believe, what we know as disclosed by divine revelation. Accordingly, missionary and evangelizing activity can be seen strictly as a task which communicates these truths to others. I am not attempting to disparage this task. In fact, this is precisely what I do every day in the classroom, i.e., communicate the truths of the faith as intelligibly as I can for my students. But the goal of evangelization is not a full understanding of the Catholic faith, rather, it is communion: communion with God and one another in the Church.

In this apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is reminding us that “handing on the faith” is not simply an intellectual activity. Rather, and primarily, “handing on the faith” is the communication of God’s love for us; a love which is personal. As St. Paul wrote: “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). For Pope Francis, as for St. Paul, faith cannot be separated from love in our evangelizing activity. It is “the love of Christ [that] urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14) in our missionary vocation, and impels our desire to seek out the least of Christ’s brothers (cf. Mt 25:40).

One passage of Evangelii Gaudium which, I think, points to this relationship between communion, love and evangelization, is the first section of chapter one, entitled, A Church which Goes Forth (Una Chiesa in uscita). This is more strictly translated as “A Church Going Forth,” a church active and in the process of reaching out. In this section Pope Francis mentions that the missionary impulse of the Church stems from the love of God who loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and who calls us to be servants of one another (cf. Jn 13:17); thus forming an evangelizing community which “goes forth” in service. This service is not a disengaged and aloof didacticism, but an immersion in and among the evangelized, a taking on of “‘the smell of the sheep,’” a forming of communion in the one who has laid down his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10:15).

This is the great reminder, I believe, of this apostolic exhortation: that the goal of evangelization is not knowledge but communion in love. This is the joy of the Gospel, that “God never tires of forgiving us” (§ 3) and constantly calls us into communion with Himself and, thereby, with one another.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


Vita Accidit

Anthony (Nino) Pio Coleman

Anthony (Nino) Pio Coleman

I had intended – with great anticipation – to submit a post in commemoration of the saint whose memorial we celebrated yesterday, i.e., St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western Monasticism and co-patron saint of Europe. While I would still like to point people in the direction of the following article concerning the “Benedict Option,” I sadly had not the time to compose said post. Mea maxima culpa. As far as excuses go, I have a pretty good one. On July 1st, my wife, son, and I welcomed a new addition into our family. His name is Antony Pio Coleman, but he is affectionately called Nino by his family.

(Bottom to Top) Moses Elias, Antony Pio, and Anthony Patrick Coleman

(Bottom to Top) Moses Elias, Antony Pio, and Anthony Patrick Coleman

By a very Catholic coincidence, Nino happens to be named after the great founder of monasticism in Eastern Christianity, St. Antony the Great of Egypt. For those who have not encountered it, St. Athanasius’ Vita Antoni is a classic of Christian Spirituality which bears much reading and re-reading. St. Augustine, for one, was moved towards his conversion by this text (cf. Conf. 8.6, 12). And while my oldest son is named in honor my wife’s grandfather, Moses, St. Moses is also another Eastern monastic saint. Thus, we seem to have a “Desert Fathers” theme as it relates to the naming of our children.

During the car-ride home from the hospital, I mentioned to my wife that I had an SJC blog post due and would likely not be able to meet my deadline. My wife, of course, suggested that I write on a topic which would be more suitable for a monograph than a blog post, and more insightful if written by a woman rather than a man. But, being a faithful husband, I shall try to convey the parallel which she drew in a few words. She was describing the process of giving birth and the sacrificial love involved in offering one’s own life for the good of another. In the Christian context, the Cross of Christ is the source and summit of this sacrificial love. And through the grace which Christ won for us on his Cross, he unites our acts of sacrificial love to his Sacrifice. Christ’s Sacrifice was perfect; our participation in his Cross adds nothing to Christ’s offering. Rather, being united to Christ benefits us, the members of the Church. Thus, St. Paul can write: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). What “is lacking” resides not with Christ, but with us. The Cross of Christ is the one, true, perfect Sacrifice, and to draw close to Christ we must draw towards the Cross. There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. But in doing so Christ conforms us to himself.

The greatest examples of being conformed to Christ by joining his suffering are the martyrs. During the aforementioned car-ride home from the hospital, my wife mentioned – in particular – the martyrdom account of St. Polycarp. During his execution by the Roman authorities, St. Polycarp (69-155) was surrounded by a “ring of fire.” But the fire did not consume him (cf. Ex 3:2). “[H]e was within it not as burning flesh but rather as bread being baked.” Through his witness, Polycarp was being conformed to Christ, his suffering was being united to Christ’s Sacrifice, he was being “transubstantiated” into the Eucharist.

As the parent of young children, I can only imagine the moments for sacrificial love which will appear in the near future. But, I pray, Christ uses them to bring me, my wife, and our children, into greater conformity with him. According to my wife, the birthing process has given her quite a bit of a lead on me. In that regard, I have some catching up to do.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


“Do I have a vocation?” Yes!

The Church places great emphasis on “praying for vocations” with good reason. In order to carry out Christ’s mission on earth we need strong families, faithful lay people and, of course, priests, deacons and religious to care for our sacramental and spiritual needs. There is, however, a part of any discussion of vocations that is often left out: what is a vocation? This is an important question to answer because knowing what a vocation is will tell us who has one.

Before I met my husband people would ask me if I was married, or seeing someone. As the years went by and my twenties turned to thirties and beyond, the question came with a twist: “Well, have you considered a vocation?” That really bothered me, I guess because it felt like a reminder that I was “alone.” But it’s actually a question based on a misunderstanding – namely that as a single person I should only consider the religious life because I didn’t already have a vocation. The truth is that each one of us has a vocation, and it is activated at our baptism.

Pope TweetThe Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2013) quotes Vatican II, saying: “’All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity.’ All are called to holiness….” The word vocation means a call, and this call comes from God and requires our response. The call to holiness is our responsibility and task as Christians. What does it mean to be holy? Scripture says God is holy, and that we are to be like God. According to St. John, “God is love.” (1 Jn 4:8). If being holy is to be like God, and God is love, then our call from God – our vocation – is to love! The answer to the question I heard repeated as a single person– “Have you considered a vocation?” – is, “I already have one. And so do you!”

The specific way we carry out our vocation to holiness and love is called our state of life. The states of life generally refer to marriage, priesthood and the consecrated life (religious sisters and brothers). We can spend many more articles just on the states of life, but the important point is that each one of us is called to holiness, to become like God: to love. Love is not a feeling, but a decision to do what’s good for another. If love were simply a feeling we couldn’t count on it, because our emotions change all the time. As persons made in the image and likeness of the God who is Love, it’s possible for us to love even when it’s difficult – or when we don’t particularly like someone. The way we love each day is enacted in our words, our actions, and in our very presence to another. We do this within our families, at work and school, at church, and in all of the encounters we have throughout our day.

Each of us is called to live out our vocation, regardless of our age or ability. For example, we wouldn’t think an infant “has a vocation,” because he can’t enact love in the ways we mentioned, much less make a decision to do so. Yet even the baby of the family is living his vocation by his very presence in the home. Next time you’re at church sitting behind a family with a baby, or see a mom or dad with a baby in a shopping cart, note your reaction. It’s only natural to coo, make faces and try to make him laugh. His presence alone is enough to draw out our love! God’s love is made present to us through the innocence (and cuteness!) of a child, and that child draws us out of ourselves. The same thing happens when we care for a family member who is ill, or non-responsive. She may not be able to say the words “I love you,” but her presence, her vulnerability and her need for us draw out love. We forget ourselves and we desire only the good of someone else. Our vocation to love is enacted in the care for a loved one – or fussing over the baby. Their vocations are enacted when they provoke in us a response of love. This provocation comes directly through the grace and loving presence of God.

We should “pray for vocations” every day; that each one of us enacts his or her vocation to love as spouses, parents and grandparents, children, priests and religious, and single persons, regardless of our age or capabilities. How is God calling you to carry out your vocation to love?

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. This article first appeared in Eastern Catholic Life, the official publication of rhe Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic.


Nothing Comes from Nothing? God in the Middle

Note: This paper was recently presented at the Catholic Theological Society of America annual conference in the Comparative Theology Reading Group: “On Reading the Bhagavad Gītā” With Francis Clooney, S.J.

Straining for a Properly Interreligious Vocabulary

On June 10, 1994, at the CTSA meeting in Baltimore, in response to Frank Clooney’s Theology after Vedānta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology, I complained that Frank was inconclusive. I discovered contrasts where he discovered comparison. He responded, as he has often, that systematic interpretation needs a theologically coherent community of discourse. I agree. A community of discourse needs vocabularies across languages. Translators are both traitors and bridge-builders.

A mixed English theological vocabulary based on Jewish and Christian scripture and theology, Greek and Latin philosophy, the English philosophical tradition, and the religion and irreligion of English speakers, constrains us. Sanskrit is almost always a later acquisition. Translating the Bhagavad Gītā is challenging. From the Hindu side, Parimal Patil states:

gitalogo“It is not possible . . . to accurately describe Hindu arguments and theories in English without a deep familiarity with philosophical and Christian theological writing in English. Thus, any discussion of Hindu material that is authentic to tradition and intelligible to contemporary theologians will already have to be comparative and dialogically responsible to Christian traditions of theology . . . As theologians from other traditions are allowed to contribute to the conceptual resources of the discipline, the vocabulary and style of English language theology should . . . become properly interreligious.”[1]

Patel is too sanguine about the coherence of our English theological vocabulary, not yet “properly interreligious.”

Forty-three years ago in June 1972, I began studying Sanskrit, tutored by Fr. Thomas Berry. My first assignment was the Gītā. I translated it before reading it. I spent the summer flipping through Sanskrit-English dictionaries looking for English words that might match the Gītā’s Sanskrit. I did not understand that the dictionaries depended on Oxbridge study of Latin and Greek, the Authorized Version, the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare, etc. The dictionaries were unfamiliar with philosophical and theological vocabularies from the Latin Christian tradition, and were certainly unfamiliar with the Greek and Oriental Christian traditions. The emergence over the past fifty years of scholars professionally literate in Sanskrit and in Catholic theology is significant, but not sufficient to the task. We may be losing ground. As Frank states:

“Behind all of this, I think, is the problem that there are fewer scholars today with a solid theological education; ‘theology’ and all the doctrines included in a major Christian tradition keep getting blurred, even if this or that scholar is more careful on the Hindu side. Perhaps the real threat to comparative theology is simply a loss of any proper sense of theology, and a forgetting of the obligations of the theologian to know something definite!”[2]

To know something definite in comparative theology, we need a properly interreligious English theological vocabulary that is appropriate both to the Christian traditions and to the Hindu traditions.

Kṛṣṇa’s Oracle

Chapter 2 presents Kṛṣṇa’s response to Arjuna’s reluctance to fight. Having lost my translation from 1972, I use Feuerstein’s translation.[3]

“The Blessed Lord said.” What follows is oracular. “Haec dicit Dominus.”

“You grieve [for those who are] not to be grieved for, and [yet] you speak words of wisdom. The learned do not sorrow for the dead or the living. Verily, never was I not, were you not, or were these rulers not, nor will any one of us not be henceforth. Just as in this body the body-essence [experiences] childhood, youth, and old age, so too it obtains another body after death. A thoughtful [man] is not confused by this . . . Of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being; of the existent there is no disappearance. Moreover, the ‘end’ of both is seen by the seers-of-Reality. Yet know as indestructible that by which this entire [world] is spread out. No one is able to accomplish the destruction of this immutable [Reality]. Finite are said [to be] these bodies of the eternal embodied [Self], the Indestructible, the Incommensurable. Hence fight, O descendant-of-Bharata.” [2.11-12, 16-18]

First Contrast: Creatio Ex Nihilo

I will consider three contrasts. The Gītā’s worldview is not the worldview of natum ex Patre unigenitum [the only-begotten born from the Father], of creatio ex nihilo [creation out of nothing], and of beginning. This worldview, since the Council of Nicaea, has centered Christian doctrine. Kṛṣṇa’s assertion challenges it head-on: “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being.”[4] There is a peculiar logic here caught by the Sound of Music: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could so somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.” The judgments of the two worldviews are asymmetrical.[5] The works of Sarah Grant and David Burrell with their focus on Śaṅkara are helpful.[6] They propose that Śaṅkara’s teaching of a “non-reciprocal relation of dependence” is a bridge to Aquinas’ theology of creation. About a thousand years after the Gītā’s composition, Śaṅkara wrote its first extant commentary from the position of advaita, non-dualism. To avoid category mistakes and genealogical confusion, caution is needed. The Gītā’s teaching is not premised on anything like creatio ex nihilo. Nor is it premised on Śaṅkara’s subtle teaching on advaita, which, however, builds on this very verse.

The doctrine of creation is not easily explained. It is possible to conceive of God without a created world. It is possible to conceive of a world without God. The world might not have been. If it does exist by creation, it is “gifted” by God. Gratitude is the appropriate response. Gratitude yields a theology of human freedom and love for God. One thing that creation is not is a change. Therefore the notion of beginning is almost as peculiar a notion as creation itself. In contrast to the Gītā’s teaching, the created universe has no material cause. Nothing changes in creation. Thomas Aquinas states this emphatically.

“Creation is not change, except merely according to a mode of understanding. For change means that the same something should be different now from what it was previously . . . But in creation, by which the whole substance of a thing is produced, the same thing can be taken as different now and before only according to our way of understanding, so that a thing is understood first as not existing at all, and afterwards as existing . . . Creation places something in the thing created according to relation only; because what is created is not made by movement or change . . . Hence creation in the creature is only a certain relation to the Creator as to the principle of its being.”[7]

Aquinas also argued that “in the beginning” could not be reasoned to. It requires revelation.

“I answer that, by faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist.”[8]

Thus the great Hindu dialecticians had no reason to reason to “beginning.” The conjoined creation of the universe by God out of nothing and of one that begins may be a “haplax legoumena” [one-time teaching] with no corresponding Hindu homologue. This judgment is tentative. The Gītā’s teaching that “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being” and the Christian teaching that God created the world out of nothing with a beginning depend on revelation, not on reasoning alone. Both are, to borrow John Millbank’s phrase, in a “suspended middle” between reason and revelation.[9] A properly interreligious vocabulary will attend to this “suspension.

Second Contrast: Why Is There Anything?

The second contrast challenges both the Gītā’s worldview and the Christian. Contrasts are not just binary. There are more than two hands involved [Shiva has six hands]. The question why there is anything rather than nothing haunts contemporary philosophical culture. The question is oblique both to Christian doctrine and to the Gītā. Martin Heidegger asks:

“Why are there ‘existents’ rather than nothing? That is the question. Clearly it is no ordinary question . . . And yet each of us is grazed at least once, perhaps more than once, by the hidden power of this question, even if he is not aware of what is happening to him.”[10]

This question cannot be answered. It is open. There is no Archimedean point from which to answer. Hans Urs von Balthasar states:

“Why in fact is there something rather than nothing? The question remains open regardless of whether one affirms or denies the existence of an absolute being. If there is no absolute being, whatever reason could there be that these finite, ephemeral things exist in the midst of nothing, things that could never add up to the absolute as a whole or evolve into it? But, on the other hand, if there is an absolute being, and if this being is sufficient unto itself, it is almost more mysterious why there should exist something else.”[11]

Contrasting Christian creatio ex nihilo and the Gītā’s “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being” leaves us in a second “suspended middle” of differing rationalities and revelations. The question why there is anything at all and the peculiar logics of a peculiarly unanswerable question compound the task. We are suspended in a suspension. The tasks of comparative theology are not just theological. Therefore we need to develop a properly interreligious vocabulary.

Concluding Contrast: Seeing with a New Eye

Chapter two was a good place to begin reading, but should not end there. Kṛṣṇa’s answers to Arjuna’s questions lead in chapter ten to wonder at who Kṛṣṇa really is. He is clearly more than a mere chariot driver. Then in chapter eleven, Kṛṣṇa gives Arjuna a new eye to really see him.

“If, Lord, You think it possible for me to see that [form of Yours], O Lord of Yoga, then do reveal to me [Your] immutable self. The Blessed Lord said: O Son-of-Prithā, behold My forms, [which are] a hundredfold, a thousandfold, of varied kinds, divine, many-colored and many-shaped . . . Behold now, O Gudākesha, the whole universe, [with all] moving and unmoving [things], abiding as one here in My [cosmic] body, and whatever else you desire to see. Yet, you will not be able to see Me with your own [physical] eye. I will give you the divine eye . . . Then the son-of-Pandu saw the whole universe, divided manifold, abiding in the One, there in the body of the God of gods . . . The Blessed Lord said: Therefore you arise [and] win glory! Conquering the enemies, enjoy a prosperous kingdom! Verily, they are [all] slain by Me. Be [My] mere instrument, O Savyasācin!” [11:4-5, 8, 13, 33]

Non est finis legendi et quaerendi!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1]Parimal G. Patel, “A Hindu Theologian’s Response: A Prolegomenon to ‘Christian God, Hindu God,’’ in Francis X. Clooney, Hindu God, Christian God: How Reason Helps Break Down the Boundaries between Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 192.

[2] Personal communication.

[3] Georg Feuerstein, with Brenda Feuerstein, trans. The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (Boston: Shambala, 2014).

[4] See the chapter entitled “Preference for the Negative” in Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1964), pp. 52-57.

[5] See my, “The Asymmetry of ‘Creation’ and ‘Origination’: Contrasts within Comparative Theology,” forthcoming in Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies.

[6] See Sara Grant, Toward An Alternative Theology: Confessions of a Non-Dualist Christian (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002); “The Contemporary Relevance of the Advaita of Sankaracarya” in Bradley J. Malkovsky ed., New Perspectives on Advaita Vedanta: Essays in Commemoration of Professor Richard De Smet, S.J. (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 148-163; and David Burrell, Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

[7]Summa Theologiae I, 45, 2, ad 2 and I.45.3.

[8] I.46.

[9] John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate concerning the Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2005).

[10]Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961 [1953]), p. 1.

[11]Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004 [1963], p. 143.

Is Marriage a Name or a Reality?

obergefell vs hodgesThe Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges cries out for commentary, and there are many more able persons than I providing just that. I won’t try to speak to the decision itself, or even to its consequences. What I would like to talk about is its antecedents: how did we get here? To those of you who study theology (perhaps at St. Joseph’s College!), I want to affirm what you are doing and show how the supposedly abstract ideas we think about actually have enormous power to shape the world for good or ill.

The key to the marriage debate, it seems to me, is the choice between two options: either marriage is a reality to which we conform ourselves, or it is a name for something that we change to fit our desires. Marriage either changes us, or we change it. Guess which one is more comfortable?

The first option is usually called “realism.” The philosophy lying beneath the second option is called “nominalism.” To oversimplify, nominalism holds that reality is disconnected from what happens in our minds. We have concepts or ideas, but those concepts don’t necessarily line up with the real world. So when we name something—say, a minivan—what we are really doing is sorting out our own thoughts about transportation, not naming something that really is beyond our mind. For the nominalist, there is a disconnect between the reality between his ears and the reality of the rest of the world. “Nominalism” comes from the Latin word for names. For the nominalist, names don’t signify something real in the world. We can play with names, make them into what we want. There is no reality tying us down.

That might all seem very abstract, until we apply it to our culture. Then we see that we are all nominalists, unless we work really hard not to be.

Let’s apply these categories to the marriage debate. If marriage is not a “mere” name but is a reality, then our task is to understand that reality and act accordingly. (This is a receptive approach to the world, if you like.) Even prescinding from what Scripture says, the history of human society demonstrates that marriage is the pair-bonding relationship between a man and a woman that facilitates the best environment for raising children. Its features are fidelity, exclusivity, and totality. It is, as the Code of Canon Law says, a partnership of the whole of life oriented to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.

This orientation toward children is, by the way, why governments have ever cared about marriage. The government does not and should not care about your intimate friendships. You don’t have to get a friendship license. You don’t need to appear before a justice of the peace to swear your commitment to your best friend. And this is a good thing. The government is not in the love-and-friendship business. It is very much in the looking-out-for-the-future business, which is why it has cared about marriage, because kids flourish when their biological parents are committed to each other and to them.

If, conversely, “marriage” is just a name that we tack onto intimate relationships, then it is elastic and can be stretched to accommodate all kinds of relationships. Why stop at two people? Marriage is just a name for indicating “the relationships which we value.” It’s a governmental seal of approval. Without it, our relationships aren’t just not-marriage; they are actually, positively demeaned. If marriage is desirable, and people desire it, they should have it. A double-tall latte is desirable; if people desire it, they should be able to have it, and if they can’t, it’s discrimination.

What may or may not apply to consumerist choices cannot apply to relationships, though. Plenty of people can’t marry: my six kids, for example. They don’t have the prerequisites to marry (such as psychological and sexual maturity). It’s not discrimination to tell my kids they can’t marry; it’s simply a realization that “marriage” is not an empty name signifying nothing but rather a reality that you either can or cannot fit into. It’s certainly not a condemnation or judgment of my kids. I can’t be a basketball center (I’m 4’11” and most certainly cannot jump). While this has caused fleeting moments of discomfort—stupid gym class!—it is not a matter of discrimination, but of reality.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t believe Justice Anthony Kennedy posted a status update along the lines of: “Just confirmed my nominalism in the Obergefell majority decision! ‘Like’ it if you reject metaphysical realism too!” Nominalism is generally not a consciously chosen lifestyle option. It’s just the default mode. But it’s not healthy. As I have argued elsewhere, it’s better to live in reality, even when it requires me to change, than to try to construct reality to fit me.

Angela Franks teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.